Mining gems from the Cesspool

Writing is perhaps the most beguiling of art forms. In fiction, for instance, we tend to avoid the more unpalatable facts of our existence and settle for a glossy approximation instead. We allude to these depths without being too explicit. And with good reason. Think what goes through your mind in an average twenty-four hour cycle. Would you really want this carnage imposed on your readers?  The problem then is one of taste. How do we as writers tackle more controversial issues without alienating our readership?   

We’re often advised not to censor our thoughts. Yet we edit and censure the written word until it resembles our thoughts not one iota. Real writing can be uncomfortable and abrasive, putting us in touch with areas we’d rather not explore. To protect ourselves and the imagined sensibilities of our readers we steer well clear.  But by avoiding these grim pecadillos we do the reader a grave disservice.  

Writing tutors often advise students to make their characters sympathetic. This, you might conclude, means removing your hero’s bad traits and leaving him/her with the more sterling qualities we come to associate with traditional literary figures. Courage, fortitude, strength and moral superiority. But what happens when you ignore this advice and opt for the cesspool?

Writers like William S Burroughs and Earl Thompson ignored convention and tackled unsavoury themes. Their protagonists were often disaffected losers, living on the fringes of society. To identify with such characters, the reader has to access that same dark space in his own mind. Crime fiction performs a similar function but with one notable exception. Most of the protagonists are detectives or upholders of the law in some capacity. The criminal’s viewpoint is marginalised and used primarily to make a moral statement. The reader’s natural bias towards the good guy is exploited and justice is seen to be done. Fine, except it isn’t always that straightforward in real life.

As humans we lead a double life. There’s the side we show to the outside world and the side we often disguise. The inner self. In fiction, characters tend to exist either side of an invisible white line. They’re either good or bad (depending on your viewpoint) and spend most of their time acting accordingly. In real life these distinctions are erroneous. There is no black and white. People are a baffling mixture of qualities, good and bad, and often act in ways that stagger those that think they know them.

The writer’s job is to get to grips with all these facets and to bring them to life. The result might not always be comfortable but will at least be an honest representation of the world we live in and the unfathomable species who share it with us.

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